Individuality vs. Community: A Reflection

It’s been a while since I posted (over a month), and as I don’t have time to write a lengthy, original blog, I decided to post my third reflection from my class on the American literary renaissance. My goal was to imagine a dialogue between Emerson, Thoreau, and Harriet Beecher Stowe on whether the individual or the community is more important. I imagined what it would be like if these three people appeared on Oprah’s talk show. Some of my classmates and my professor were highly amused by the results.

* * *

If Oprah Winfrey hosted Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Harriet Beecher Stowe on her talk show, the results would be far more fascinating than Tom Cruise jumping on a sofa could ever hope to be.

After Oprah walks onto the stage, twelve minutes of cheering commence before she can calm down her audience, 98% of whom are women. Once the crowd is semi-quiet, Oprah announces that the topic of the day’s show will be on the importance of the individual versus the community. She brings her three guests out for a panel-like discussion, and soon, our three paramours of American literature are seated in chocolate-brown armchairs on the stage.

“Thank you all for joining us today,” Oprah begins. “I’ve brought you all here to discuss the advantages of the individual over the community in society. What are your thoughts?”

Waldo jumps in first. “I am a Transparent Eyeball!” he declares. “’I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God!’”

An awkward pause, and then, the audience begins to whisper. Oprah leans forward in her chair and fixes her penetrating gaze on Waldo. “What exactly does that mean?”

Waldo sighs and glances at Henry, who seems to be slowly petting the arm of the chair. Shaking his head, he painstakingly explains, “Divinity is found within oneself, Ms. Winfrey. The individual is far more important than a community; only through communing with Nature—alone—can one truly understand the world . . . and God.”

Oprah nods emphatically. “Yes, yes, I see what you mean.” She turns to her next guest. “Henry, what do you think?” A pause as Henry kneels on the floor to examine the thread on the chair cushion. “Henry? What are you doing?”

“I am determined to know this chair, Oprah,” Henry replies, finally looking at his host.

“You may have it, Henry,” Oprah replies generously. “Take it home to your cabin.”

“Oh, my cabin is far too small for this, Oprah. Besides, I don’t think it matches the décor.”

Oprah lifts one eyebrow toward her audience, who laugh appropriately and collectively.

“We can discuss the chair later. Now, do you think the individual or the community is to be privileged?”

Henry, now seated, scoffs. “The individual, of course. You realize I live in the woods, right? Alone? Away from the community?”

“Yes, I believe we’re all aware of that. But why?”

“In society, man is just a machine . . . “

Waldo interrupts: “A mere cog in the machine of society! Only Nature can free you from this machine!”

“Yes, Waldo,” Henry breaks in. “In society, or what you may call ‘community,’ man is merely a tool. Alone, in Nature, man is his own being. ‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.’”

“Oh, that’s good!” Oprah declares delightedly. “I’m going to remember that!”

“Ms. Winfrey, if you start marching to your own drummer, all of these women,” Harriet points to the audience,” will most assuredly follow after you. You do not live in isolation, as these men do. You are part of the community of women.”

“Interesting. Do you believe that men and women, then, live differently?”

“I believe these men need community more than they think. It’s all well and good to go tromping about the woods at Walden, but where would these men as individuals be without the community from whence they sprung? Where would they be without the mothers who raised them and the teachers who instructed them? Where would they be without their scholarly chats in Emerson’s study? Why, Henry even lives on Emerson’s land! They are a part of a community of artists, whether they want to admit it or not.”

Oprah claps. “Well said, Mrs. Stowe. It’s nice to hear a different perspective. Do you have any response, gentlemen?”

Waldo stands. “I’m still a Transparent Eyeball; alone, and only alone, I am a microcosm of God and Nature. As an individual, I am a worthy asset to any community, yet I refuse to be merely a tool of that community, as you undoubtedly are, Mrs. Stowe.” With that, Waldo marches off stage, loudly tapping his walking stick on the floor. Henry continues to examine the chair, oblivious to Waldo’s leaving, and Harriet continues to explain to Oprah and the audience about the necessity of community in the lives of women.

 

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A Conversation with Thoreau on Simplicity

Reflection #2 for my American Renaissance class. I had to fast from some aspect of technology for awhile and then converse with Henry David Thoreau about living simply and deliberately.

* * *

For the sake of this reflection, I’m imagining that I’m a time traveler visiting Walden Pond in 1846, during the second year of Thoreau’s experiment. Thoreau, in all his wisdom and understanding, does not question a world in which I am a time traveler, and in our many conversations, I’ve explained in-depth the progression of technology in the century and a half that separates us.

Thoreau and I sit in two of his chairs in his cabin at the pond. We each have a drinking cup filled with water from Walden Pond, and he sucks on a peppermint, one of those soft ones that everyone loves. With every trip, I bring him some small token from my present-time, and peppermints are his favorite.

I tell Henry that I gave up Facebook for most of five days, save for the occasional message requiring an immediate response. He nods slightly but remarks, “I still don’t understand the obsession of your society with Facebook and the internet. Are you not overwhelmed constantly?”

“Yes,” I state emphatically. “But, somehow, everyone is used to the constant overload of information. Henry, you’re seen as an anomaly in my world. You’re revered for your ‘living deliberately,’ and you’re admired, but most people, in reality, believe that living simply and deliberately is impossible. Even I believe that sometimes.”

“Do you think five days away from Facebook allowed you to live more deliberately?”

“In some ways, yes. I found that I didn’t miss reading about the trivialities of everyone’s day. Knowing what those hundreds of people ate for lunch or how they celebrated Valentine’s Day in no way improves my life. You worried about how the railroad would transform the world, Henry, but I don’t think you could have ever imagined how a keyboard and a computer screen could make our lives so mundane. No one has time to sit around and contemplate truth, or read classic works of literature written in Latin, or even listen and observe Nature. We’re slaves to a world of technology.”

Thoreau looks troubled. Though I’ve explained computers and iPods and the like to him, he can never truly understand. “You must fight this. You must simplify your life. What have you done instead of Facebook to simplify your life?”

“It’s hard, Henry, but there was one moment I wanted to tell you about. I sat on my front porch one day during my fast from Facebook. I was reading your book—the one you’re going to write about the time you’ve spent here. Though it was February, the day was one of those magnificent early spring days. The birds were returning to South Carolina, and I heard several chirping in the tree just behind my house. There was also a squirrel in one of the bushes in front of my house. I saw his tail twitching and heard his little chirps. In that moment, I was completely free from technology. I wasn’t listening to music, and I wasn’t reading status updates, and I wasn’t constantly check the news from other parts of the world. I was existing simply in that moment, with the breeze blowing and listening to the animals, and I realized that your simple living is incredibly beautiful.”

Henry smiles encouragingly. “How will you continue this?”

I pause, afraid of disappointing him. “I can’t keep that up forever, though. I don’t live in a world where that’s possible. In Walden, you will write about how your time at the pond is just one life among many that you live. Even you can’t sustain this life forever. I’ll have to live deliberately in other ways. I can enjoy moments of Nature, but I also find fulfillment in other ways of living.”

“Living deliberately will not look the same for you, and you need to realize that. I came to the woods because I wish to live deliberately, but you obviously don’t need to do that, too. Find those moments where life is truly sublime, where you fulfill the purpose for which you have been created. Work hard, seek adventure, and accomplish your goals. Seek truth and understanding in every moment, and cut out all the excess of life that doesn’t lead you to wisdom and a great knowledge of your world.

I nod. “I can do that.”

Henry slaps his hands against his knees and stands. “How long are you staying?”

I stand, too. “Awhile. Need some help in the bean-field?”

“Of course!” he says and strides to the door. Before I turn to leave the cabin, I pull a small bag of peppermints from my pocket and leave them on Henry’s table. He’ll appreciate the simple gift, I’m sure.

On Living Deliberately

On my wrist is a green rubber bracelet that I bought at Walden Pond in August 2009. The bracelet says “LIVE DELIBERATELY” on it, and I never take it off. I need the reminder:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Currently, I’m reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden–in its entirety–for the first time. Though nearly everyone (myself included) is familiar with many of Thoreau’s ideas (such as the above quotation), I never realized how powerful this work of literature is. It isn’t enough to read Thoreau’s passage on living deliberately without understanding how he applied that concept to every moment of his time spent at Walden Pond–even the time spent plowing his bean-field.

Class on Thursday night was a glorious two-and-a-half hour discussion on what it means to live deliberately. Thoreau entitled his first chapter “Economy,” a chapter which composes about one-quarter of the work. By economy, he does not refer merely to financial matters, though that is a part of it. Economy is, in Thoreau’s world, living deliberately–making the most of every resource we’ve been given, particularly time.

We spent a portion of class adapting a definition of economics and applying it to life. We listed scarce resources (time, energy, health, passion, etc.), with restrictions (we must eat and sleep; there are only 24 hours in a day), and determined how we could best use those resources, within the confines of those restrictions, to fully achieve our wants and needs. We spent time reflecting on what we truly want in life and discovered that the 8 of us in the classroom essentially all want similar things: deep, meaningful relationships; health; knowledge; the ability to travel; sanity; etc.

This week, our class is challenged to live deliberately, to fast from some aspect of our lives that does not enable us to live simply. Mostly, we agreed that technology is one area that has a total hold on our lives, that is freeing to give up. So until Tuesday, I’m staying away from Facebook. I’m making an effort not to be enslaved to my email and cell phone (though that is harder than leaving Facebook), and I’m attempting to think about each moment of my day through the perspective of living deliberately. In each moment, I have a choice in my actions–I could waste time in an activity that isn’t productive, that results from boredom; or I could choose to live each moment.

One thing about Thoreau’s idea, however, is that he isn’t Christian. Yes, he gives evidence of knowledge of biblical truth, but he does not espouse it. (For example, he feels that men have “hastily concluded” that our chief end is to glorify God. I tend to agree that this is our chief end, though I have not hastily concluded this premise.) This isn’t a problem for me. As a Christian and a scholar, I recognize that all truth is God’s truth, and even when an author writes from an opposing worldview, I can recognize the pervasiveness of my Father’s glory. For example, after leaving class Thursday night, I passed a church with a marquee imploring me to love the Lord my God with ALL my heart, soul, mind, and strength. And in that moment of thinking about living deliberately and reading the Scripture as I drove past, I realized that this commandment is the very essence of living deliberately for a Christ-follower. Loving God with everything I have is intentional and deliberate and the only way to live fully and completely.

My LIVE DELIBERATELY bracelet isn’t a reminder for me to sell my possessions, move to a cabin in the woods, and plant beans. Instead, it is a reminder that life is a choice. I can choose to fritter it away with meaningless pursuits, or I can choose to deliberately seek the will of my Father in every moment.

American Bloomsbury

americanbloomsburyIn preparation for our trip to New England, I’ve once again picked up American Bloomsbury, which is about Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Margaret Fuller, the writers who shaped American literature. Susan Cheever attempts to portray the real lives of these auspicious men and women. She states in chapter 1: “[T]his is not only a story about ideas and their power to form a national identity; it’s about love triangles and the difficulties of raising children, about grief and inspiration and bad advice and passionate friendships, about the ebb and flow of daily life in the New England seasons of  a small town.” Sounds good, right?

Cheever has done loads of research, and much of the stories are written in narrative form, which gives the book an air of fiction. She also makes bold statements about their lives; sometimes, it’s amusing (see following quote on Emerson) and sometimes, it’s annoying. I started reading this last year, when we initially planned our New England trip, and couldn’t even make it through part 1. I didn’t want my perceptions of Thoreau, Emerson, and the others to be ruined by her opinions. I have since decided to give it another chance.

Some points that Cheever makes:

emerson1. Emerson, with the money left to him by his first wife, who died young of TB, supported all of his fellow thinkers and writers at some time or another. Cheever states:

Emerson wrote some wonderful lines, and some true biographical portraits, but it is as the sugar daddy of American literature that he really takes his place in the pantheon of Concord writers.

Of what I had previously read, this is the statement that I distinctly remembered, one that makes me smile a little every time I think of it. I wonder what Emerson would think of this particular phrasing?

bronson alcott2. I’m not really a fan of Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father), so this book hasn’t really skewed my perception of him. Still, I found Cheever’s statements about his marriage with Abba Alcott to be interesting:

Bronson Alcott, in his doomed consociate society, believed that marriage shouldn’t limit a man’s ability to be with other women or a woman’s ability to be with other men, a freedom that rang hollow to his wife, who had no desire to be with other men and less and less desire to be with Alcott himself.

Alcott, though beloved by Louisa May, was not a good husband and father. He spent a lot of time away from home, visiting other areas of New England, and even England on occassion, teaching his radical beliefs on education (not all of which are bad, admittedly), and attempting to persuade others to his ideology of communal living. (Granted, I’m all for communal living, but Alcott attempted to live communally, with far too many social freedoms, and a lack of intelligence about farming and gardening. He didn’t believe in milking the cows or using the animals to plow and was, therefore, a terrible agrarian.)

3. Cheever talks way too much about sex in this book. The way she tells it, the Concord Transcendentalists were all having affairs with each other. The married men Emerson and Hawthorne were both in love with Margaret Fuller, young Louisa May Alcott loved both Emerson and Thoreau, and Thoreau was in love with Emerson’s wife, Lidian. She also even speculates on whether Thoreau was gay.

On that note, however, I tend to agree with some of what she says. While Cheever believes the other authors’ sexuality greatly influenced their word (i.e. Hawthorne’s infatuation with Margaret Fuller was the basis of both The Blithedale Romance and The Scarlet Letter), she states about Thoreau:

[I]t isn’t clear that Thoreau’s sexuality affected his life at all. It’s a twenty-first century question directly at an emphatically nineteenth-century personality. What is to be said about a man whose connections to birds and fish and all living things sustained him in a way that his connections to other people could never do?

thoreauThat seems more fitting with the ideas I’ve had about Thoreau–the man who loved Nature and was so in tune with the trees and the animals that he sort of wandered through the rest of his life in a sort of daze.

Cheever’s discussion on Walden might be my favorite parts of the whole book. She writes:

Freed from his daily indebtedness to Emerson, [Thoreau] wrote as if awakening, and the sense of awakening runs through the book. Walden is the first American memoir, the first book in which the days and nights of an autobiographical, confessional narrator are the central plotline. Thoreau invented nature writing and memoir writing in one swift, brilliant stroke.

In regards to the popularity that Walden has in present-day America, Cheever states:

Walden is a masterpiece, but it is generally cited more than it is read. The mention of Walden in polite society inevitably elicits great praise. “My favorite book,” someone says. Or, “I live by that book.” What they mean is that they know about the book and take it to be a hand book for the simpler life they might want to lead, if they ever got tired of making money and going to parties, or if they ever came to believe that the status in their community that makes them comforatable was really not important at all.

So true. I love Walden–for those reasons. Ideally, I’d like to live a simple life, free of clutter and materialism. But all you need to do is walk in my room, where piles of stuff clutter my life and wonder where the simplicity is.

All in all, I’d say this book definitely improves as one keeps reading. Cheever, I think, sometimes takes too much liberty in telling these stories–I think she assumes too much about the details of their lives that we could never actually know. And as much as I like New Historicism, there’s something to be said for limiting the details of the author’s life–I don’t think knowing every detail about Hawthorne’s supposed love affair with Fuller should in any way influence my reading of The Scarlet Letter. His Puritan ancestry…yes, it’s quite important. I don’t think his sexual life is. And with that, I’m finished.

I read this book over the course of the day yesterday, and this morning, I dreamed that I was sitting in some house in Concord having a fantastic discussion with Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Fuller. I don’t remember what we were discussing, but I know we were all friends. 🙂